Ads by Google Ads by Google

Controversy raised over new residence rule for local attorneys

attorney Sean Morrison

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Attorney General Fainu'ulelei Falefatu Ala'ilima-Utu, through his Deputy, Roy Hall, is seeking to disbar all attorneys who leave American Samoa and take up residence elsewhere. According to a motion filed in the High Court by Hall, a new court rule requiring new bar applicants to be residents also means that if a lawyer moves away and gets an address outside of American Samoa, they lose their license right away.

Legal experts are saying that the Attorney General is not reading the rule correctly. They say the rule doesn't say anything about taking away licenses from lawyers who already have them. Many attorneys licensed in American Samoa have a long history of helping people in the territory while living somewhere else. For example, Charles Alailima worked on many cases in American Samoa for decades while a resident of Washington State. Even the Attorney General's Office has lawyers who live outside of American Samoa.

"Helping a community does not stop just because you move away," said attorney Sean Morrison, who has provided help and free pro bono work for American Samoan businesses and nonprofits from his office in Louisiana. "Sometimes, it is very hard for people to find an attorney on-island, so it's extremely concerning that the AG wants to cut people off from legal help."

The Attorney General's move comes at a time where there aren't enough lawyers in American Samoa who are working outside of government. Even private practice attorneys are working for the government, with many pulled away to shore up understaffing in government legal offices. Observers worry this effort to disbar 2-thirds of the bar association will only make the situation worse. They think it might scare new lawyers away and make it even harder for people in American Samoa to get the legal help they need.

Challenges to the constitutionality of this move are expected. As the controversy unfolds, the public is left to question why the Attorney General appears more focused on making it harder to get legal help than on making it easier.